HKAFF 2011: LET'S GO! Review

James Marsh, Asian Editor
Whenever Hong Kong director Wong Ching Po releases a new film, I invariably find myself approaching it with newfound excitement and lofty expectations, despite the fact that to-date they have never fully been met. While Wong's films are always beautifully crafted and gorgeous to look at, and more often than not address themes firmly rooted in hardboiled crime Cinema, somewhere along the way they fail to connect. Wong has a tendency to approach his films with a lofty, some might say pretentious, ambition that attempts to transcend the trappings of the subject matter and find some greater meaning or resonance. However, crime stories and overt expressionism are uneasy bedfellows at the very best of times and Wong's films have in the past struggled to find this balance between plot machinations firmly rooted in genre and a stylistic bent perhaps better suited to philosophical meditation than a gangster flick. 

REVENGE: A LOVE STORY was more successful as it packaged its themes of sadism, persecution, vengeance and redemption in the form of a perverse romance, which better suited Wong's particular style of visual poetry. After failing to make much of an impact at home, the film proved a notable hit on the festival circuit, with Wong and leading man Juno Mak even collecting an award or two for their troubles. They have now re-teamed for LET'S GO!, which at first glance appears to be Wong's most overtly commercial work yet. A nostalgic callback to the Japanese superheroes and cartoons on which he grew up, LET'S GO! promises dastardly villains, gorgeous babes, action, excitement and pure, unadulterated heroism as only a young idealistic child can imagine it. While the film does deliver the goods in almost all of these departments, it also spends far too long procrastinating about exactly what kind of movie it wants to be, as if the director himself was still wrestling with his conscious over whether or not to produce a straight-up commercial movie.

Siu Sheung (Juno Mak) is a solitary and frustrated young man. He works as a delivery boy at a small noodle shop and lives with his mother (Pat Ha) in a large, dilapidated Kowloon housing estate. As a young boy he enjoyed nothing more than watching his favourite anime, Space Emperor God Sigma, and singing along to Leslie Cheung's theme song with his father. However, after seeing his dad shot dead trying to apprehend a bank robber, Siu Sheung has spent the last twenty years wandering aimlessly, looking for a way to bring justice back to the community. 

A local gangster, Shing (Gordon Lam), impressed by Siu Sheung's fighting skills, recruits him into his gang, part of the impressive Matsumoto syndicate, run by Boss Hon Yu (Jimmy Wang Yu). Desperate for the money, Siu Sheung takes the job and soon finds himself working as personal bodyguard to Hon Yu's beautiful yet feisty daughter, Annie (Stephy Tang). When Shing embarks on a violent coup to overthrow Hon Yu, Siu Sheung is forced into action, not only to protect Annie, but to defeat evil and restore peace and harmony to the community. Cheered on by his simpleminded childhood friend, Big Bird (Wen Chao) and the other residents, all looking for a hero to mobilize them, Siu Sheung forms the courageous Earth Guard and the stage is set for a bloody confrontation with Shing's gang. 

If it all sounds a bit ridiculous, that's because it is, but LET'S GO! is clearly a very personal project for Wong and it is reassuring to see him embarking on something so clearly outside his comfort zone. There are some incredibly entertaining action sequences in the film, a number of violent and unsurprisingly stylish skirmishes, as well as moments of throwback animation that fans of the inspirational anime series, or others of its ilk, should revel in. Any film that dares to dress up Stephy Tang like Evel Knievel, stick her on a motorbike and arm her with a rocket launcher deserves praise for scope of vision if nothing else. All this only adds to the frustration that, for long periods of the film, not a great deal happens. 

Siu Sheung spends far too much time moping around, frustrated about the injustice he sees around him, without doing anything about it. The hyperactive superhero element of the film is introduced far later in the game than it really should have been and is over far too quickly. Each time Wong begins to build momentum, whether in the action, the drama or even the burgeoning romance between Siu Sheung and Annie, he shifts down a gear, as if shying away from genre conventions, and we must wait ten minutes before the film engages its audience again.

Hopefully there is enough fun to be had in LET'S GO! to galvanize audiences to get behind it and Wong is encouraged sufficiently to explore further outside his previously established boundaries. His visual aesthetic deserves a far more lively, engaging and - dare I say - commercial narrative than he has attempted up to this point, but LET'S GO! does prove he is at least moving in the right direction. It is an odd little film, no doubt about it, and one full of intriguing ideas, some of which were sadly only partially realized. When it works, however, it is bundles of fun and for the most part tides you over through the baggy sections of moping and procrastination until the next fight, singsong or loud explosion. As always, the films of Wong Ching Po continue to suggest something more than they ultimately deliver, but remain as strangely alluring as ever.
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